Maersk is testing a biofuel that could alter the course of shipping

Despite that we’re in the early stages of 2020, it’s already been a momentous year for the shipping industry’s commitment to cleaning up its act.

On Jan. 1, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) ordered the world’s shipping fleet, which accounts for 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, to significantly cut the amount of sulfur pollution it emits when sailing in coastal waters. It’s part of a bigger industry goal to cut global emissions by 50 percent in the next 30 years. 

In order to meet their 2050 goals, shipping companies are looking beyond traditional fuel sources toward alternative fuel technologies such as battery power, hydrogen, ammonia fuel cells and, in one case, a blend of lignin and ethanol called LEO.

The LEO Project is an initiative spearheaded by Maersk, Wallenius Wilhelmsen and Copenhagen University, in partnership with BMW Group, H&M Group, Levi Strauss & Co. and Marks & Spencer to explore the environmental and commercial viability of using LEO to power global shipping fleets, which account for between 80 and 90 percent of international trade.

Lignin is a naturally occurring polymer that gives plants their rigidity. It’s also a byproduct of paper production: Roughly 60 million metric tonnes are produced globally every year.

Scientists at Copenhagen University are fine-tuning a blend of lignin and ethanol that can be used as a “drop-in heavy biofuel” that can be produced for the shipping industry at scale. (In this case, “heavy” means the fuel has a high viscosity at room temperature.)

Lee Kindberg, who leads Maersk North America’s environmental and sustainability efforts, said LEO was identified as a potential fuel source roughly 18 months ago; however, Maersk didn’t formally announce The LEO Project until October. Kindberg says the three-year project has gained momentum because of retail companies’ growing interest in slashing their supply-chain emissions. 

“The customers’ desire for [low-carbon and zero-carbon fuel sources] definitely makes a difference in the priority that we as shipping companies place on it,” she said. 

LEO is an example of a short-cycle carbon fuel source. That means that unlike fossil fuels, the carbon that goes into the lignin and ethanol used in LEO will come out of the atmosphere in the same year that the fuel is burned. Therefore, depending on how companies do their carbon accounting, LEO either will be considered a net-zero or a low-carbon fuel source.

Roger Strevens, vice president of global sustainability at Wallenius Wilhelmsen, said creating a heavy biofuel such as LEO is significant for two reasons. “First, it means it has the potential to be a drop-in fuel for existing ships, since they have been predominantly running on heavy fuels for the last several decades,” Strevens wrote from Norway. “Secondly, by being a heavy fuel, it isn’t of interest to road transportation or aviation because those vehicles are not equipped to handle heavy fuels.”

Because LEO is intended to be a drop-in fuel, researchers anticipate that minimal modifications will be required to shipping vessels. That’s good news, Kindberg said, considering the average lifespan of a seagoing cargo ship is 20 to 25 years and freshwater cargo vessels can remain in operation for 60 to 80 years. 

However, that doesn’t mean there won’t be unexpected challenges when LEO makes the leap from the laboratory to the shipyard. Kindberg cited when early biodiesel fuels were first introduced to some truck models as an example of the kind of unanswered questions surrounding LEO. 

“The biodiesel fuels used in trucks were found to have some temperature sensitivities and some potential shelf-life issues,” she said. “Although LEO isn’t strictly a biodiesel, it’s still going to go into very large diesel engines. This is a new approach, and anytime you have new approaches, there’s always the risk of surprises.”

Scientists analyzing different formulations and fuel properties of LEO in the lab are doing their part to minimize those surprises. The LEO Project is aiming to move from Phase I to Phase II of fuel testing in the second quarter of this year. After that, the next major milestone will be land-based testing of LEO, which Strevens anticipates happening by the end of 2020. 

If LEO performs well, the project’s collaborators next will have to face the challenges associated with scaling production and making LEO competitive in the fuel market. That means that not only will LEO have to be available in sufficient quantities to meet the coalition’s demands, it’ll have to be readily available in global ports where vessels refuel.

When the project gets to that stage, Kindberg and Strevens confirmed that LEO will be produced from sustainable feedstocks and won’t be sourced from land that otherwise would be used for food production.

Although there’s still much to be learned about LEO (notably, it’s still too early to know a price point that we can use to compare it against other fuel sources), companies involved with The LEO Project are hopeful it’ll emerge as a major tool that the shipping industry can use to curb emissions.

“At present, there are few, if any, viable paths to zero emissions for the existing world fleet,” Strevens wrote. “However, considering the GHG targets IMO has set, carbon neutrality is really where the existing fleet needs to get to as soon as possible. Achieving carbon neutrality would be possible through switching to a drop-in carbon-neutral fuel, which is what LEO aims to become.”

On paper, LEO is a welcome alternative from the global shipping industry’s long-term fuel of choice. For more than 50 years, shippers have relied on bottom-of-the-barrel sludge — the dregs that remain after lighter fuels such as diesel and petrol are refined away — to power cargo vessels. The viscous, black gloop packs a punch, and it’s dense with sulphur, particulates and other residues. The world’s global fleet burns more than 3 million barrels of bunker fuel every day, releasing greenhouse gases (GHG) such as carbon and methane into the atmosphere. 

However, with the new IMO regulations and the 2050 emission goals, shipping companies are being forced to come up with new practices to adhere to the standards. That includes installing expensive, stopgap sulphur-capturing scrubbers, cutting speed at sea, reducing idling time outside ports, reconsidering ship design and efficiency features, and exploring alternative fuel sources such as LEO. 

Given that the industry is projected to contribute over 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 if ships continue to rely on the bunker fuels used today, Strevens says The LEO Project is a prime example of what it will take for large, multinational corporations to really move the needle on sustainability. 

“The decarbonization challenge is far greater than what any one company can meet by itself,” he wrote. “Collaboration is a critical element in achieving the progress we need as quickly as possible.”